No place to go: Anchorage homeless shelter capacity has been pushed to the brink – Anchorage Daily News | Gmx Pharm

There are no loopholes in Anchorage’s homeless assistance system.

Shelters and residential programs are largely full, many with long waiting lists. For the first time in decades, Anchorage has no walk-in, accessible homeless shelter.

City officials, social workers, and attorneys are all scrambling to find quick fixes to accommodate and protect Anchorage’s homeless residents before the onset of cold winter weather.

For anyone who becomes homeless, “the only options you have right now is to camp in the woods or go to the centennial,” said Nancy Burke, United Way’s special assistant for housing and COVID-19 response.

Service providers say that when freezing temperatures arrive, what is most needed is low-barrier shelters that have minimal entry requirements and do not require sobriety. That’s the kind of capacity currently only available outdoors at Centennial Park Campground in northeast Anchorage, where Mayor Dave Bronson’s administration directed homeless people when it closed mass accommodation at Sullivan Arena.

“It’s the low-barrier part that’s going to really make the difference as you move into winter,” said Robin Dempsey, executive director of Catholic Social Services, which oversees Brother Francis Shelter. “Because we need to know that no matter who you are or what your life is like right now, there will be a safe place to take refuge. So I’m hopeful. I hope that will happen. I mean lives are really at stake if we don’t find out.”

The Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness estimates that more than 350 people are living vulnerable — in Centennial Park, in unauthorized camps scattered about the city’s green spaces, in their vehicles, or in other places unsuitable for human habitation .

And more than 230 homeless people the city has housed in rooms at the Aviator Hotel are expected to lose their homes when city funding runs out at the end of September unless more emergency shelter or housing is provided quickly.

According to the coalition, more than 100 people have moved from homelessness to apartments every month since November last year. But over the same period, about twice as many people enter the city’s homeless assistance system.

While not all necessarily need immediate shelter, all of these people resort to some form of homeless support services.

Expansion Challenges

Bronson officials have said a planned 150-bed shelter and navigation center in East Anchorage won’t be ready until late January. That’s pending the city getting federal permission from the Army Corps of Engineers to build in the wetland.

Meanwhile, shelters across the city are struggling with a surge in demand. The closure of Sullivan Arena as an emergency shelter last month has sent people looking for alternative options, filling almost every available slot in the city’s network of nonprofits and service providers.

Many of the organizations say they have no idea where those at the city-approved Centennial campground or non-approved camps around Anchorage will be going when the weather turns colder.

“All shelters are full. There’s no place to point people to,” Dempsey said.

The pandemic forced Brother Francis Shelter – which has long served as a landing pad for people who needed a place to stay – to drastically reduce its capacity to 76. At its peak in the pre-COVID years, the shelter near downtown Anchorage accommodated 240 people on mats laid on the floor. Dozens more people slept outside on the sidewalk and in the wooded lot across from Third Avenue.

“When we had these higher numbers, we had a more transient group,” Dempsey said.

There were many other problems that came with handling such a large crowd in a relatively small building. Staff were often so busy attending to customers’ immediate needs that they couldn’t devote much time to helping them find accommodations and benefit programs.

“They have more space now,” Dempsey said. “Our customer-employee relationship is much better.”

That’s one of the reasons Brother Francis is adamant that the shelter will never go back to the way it was. They plan to modestly increase the number of beds to 120 when winter approaches and have received financial support from the congregation to do so. But like others, they don’t have the capacity to accommodate all the people who are currently sleeping outdoors. Brother Francis is no longer walk-in accommodation, but now works with referrals and waiting lists.

It’s hardly alone.

Not far away, the Downtown Hope Center, a faith-based soup kitchen, has seen a general surge in need since the Sullivan closed.

“We’ve seen a lot of changes,” said Executive Director Sherrie Laurie. “A lot of the women from there came down here.”

The center expanded its number of overnight beds to 57 and has begun allowing women to sleep on cots under an awning in an enclosed outdoor area. This room can accommodate up to 15 people, but is not that crowded yet.

“We can probably only do it until the end of September, I think,” Laurie said. “There is no other place.”

The organization has recently expanded and purchased an 18-unit apartment complex to accommodate participants in its cooking and baking apprenticeship programme. Though the one-bedroom units house three to four women each, according to Laurie, demand remains high. And with more people, the burden increases for all the ancillary services the center provides — more loads of laundry, more showers, more meals in the soup kitchen.

Elsewhere, the city’s greenbelt still houses dozens of scattered camps. Without available indoor sleeping accommodation, the municipality cannot legally remove camps from public land.

Though the sanctioned campground at the Centennial was riddled with problems — like criminal activity, lack of services, bears attracted to campers’ food — acting Parks and Recreation Director Mike Braniff, Laurie and others claim camping is a more orderly option if it is measured against some alternatives.

Overall, fewer people are gathering in illegal camps along the trails, according to Braniff and the community workers he oversees. Many of the park employees who would normally be doing camp extinguishing and clean-up work at this time of year have been transferred to Centennial and are now helping with operations there. According to Braniff, less waste is being removed from public spaces compared to previous years.

‘inflow and outflow’

On Tuesday, the congregation passed a funding package to boost efforts to help pre-winter homeless people, including $433,000 to help Brother Francis add 44 more beds.

An additional $1.2 million will go to the Anchorage Department of Health to develop and author an emergency shelter plan for the city, providing emergency shelter for adults and cold-weather response.

Alexis Johnson, Mayor Bronson’s chief of staff, said the administration is working on a winter protection plan and will draft it and present it to the assembly. They will make an appeal to churches to offer help, she said.

“The focus that you’re going to see now with this whole city is this,” Johnson said. “Let’s get ahead before the snow flies.”

The congregation also spent half a million dollars to rehabilitate approximately 60 rental units through United Way’s Landlord Housing Partnership. Once the program locates these units, they will be designated for the homeless, said Burke, who helps oversee the program and previously served as the city’s homelessness coordinator at the Berkowitz administration.

And demand is high: A highly competitive rental market — particularly for low-income and potential renters affected by homelessness — has marginalized more families, Burke said.

Rob Marx, who oversees supportive housing efforts for the Rural Alaska Community Action Program, said people who want or choose to camp are statistical outliers and may face a lack of options. Most others are looking for a place to stay with the right support – but these units are not available.

“It’s not like all these people are waiting to get an apartment that exists. That, I think, that’s really the big part. There aren’t any flats out there,’ he said.

There are many reasons, according to Marx, why people affected by homelessness might also be cautious when social services offer help. For example, many may have suffered trauma, may have experienced severe trauma while previously in an emergency shelter, or have untreated mental illness and substance use problems.

“It’s always shaped by the person’s personal experience and their historical experience with the social services, you know, the homeless services in the city,” Marx said.

Though movement through the city’s shelters and homelessness assistance system is slow, it’s happening, said Capt. Denise Delgado, director of social services at The Salvation Army in Anchorage.

Every day, shelter availability fluctuates as individuals and families move from and into shelters.

“They may not have capacity today, but tomorrow is a different story. And so it really works within the system that’s already here and includes the people that are here in that system,” Delgado said.

At Centennial, The Salvation Army coordinates customer services, interviews the homeless and connects them to services. So far, more than 34 people have moved away from the campsite, Delgado said.

Still, others are moving in and filling the open spots at the campground, she said.

“There is an inflow and an outflow. And that’s part of the success and part of the challenge,” said Braniff of Parks and Rec.

Braniff said Friday about 200 people are camping, giving or taking at Centennial.

For people at Centennial and others experiencing vulnerable homelessness, there are numerous barriers to accessing already scarce services, housing, and the world of work. People need access to phones, transportation, and help with obtaining ID, paperwork, health care, and more. Many have mental health problems, suffer from addictions or trauma, and face difficult economic obstacles.

“Homelessness would be fixed now if it were easy, right?” said Delgado. “So multifaceted. It’s layered. It’s a series of things.”

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